Australia’s National Freight and Supply Chain Strategy is an initiative that was launched by the government in May 2018. The aim of the strategy is to make it easier, quicker and cheaper to move goods and to increase the competitiveness of Australian business. 

A large part of the essential freight framework is the Inland Rail project. Historic progress has been made as the Inland Rail project has now been worked on in earnest: construction began in December 2018, with the first trains expected to operate in 2024 or 2025. This behemoth venture is the largest infrastructure project in Australia and will comprise 1,700km of freight rail infrastructure upon completion. The project has had $9.3 billion of funds dedicated to it but is predicted to be well worth the investment, with an economy boost of $16 billion. 

The Inland Rail venture is itself divided into 13 separate and distinct projects, each of which was assessed and analysed for its economic benefits. The project should create an estimated 16,000 jobs – 700 of those ongoing upon the project’s conclusion. One of the most significant benefits is the lightening of road freight and congestion, creating additional capacity for Sydney’s road and rail infrastructure in particular. Another key benefit of the project will be to better connect cities and farms to markets, enabling further development of vital industry such as agriculture, manufacturing and mining. 

The design of this project couldn’t be produced by government alone, so there were a number of focus groups held in December 2018 which resulted in tweaks being made to the programme, its implementation and a breakdown of how industry would support the initiative. 

At the last count in 2017, 14.1% of the Australian population live in rural locations, and there has been significant pressure to ensure that these communities are better provided with access to the freight industry. One of the outcomes of the National Freight and Supply Chain Strategy focus groups was to take further consideration of first-mile and last-mile issues, for this very reason. It certainly is a key point when Australia’s agricultural sector is worth an estimated $60 billion and would benefit hugely from enhanced rural connections.

Another of the topics which was revisited during these focus groups was that of safety. There have been three freight-train derailments in as many months, which is of particular concern. One of Australian coal haulier Pacific National’s trains derailed in January 2019 near the Hunter Valley in New South Wales. Although on this occasion there were no injuries, the incident was significant, with Pacific National adding that the last six wagons of the train had derailed.

The regulator is currently on site assessing the situation with the removal of the wagons and repairs to the track expected to commence after assessments have been completed, the company said.

In November, BHP Group forced a train off the track after it ran away without its driver en route to the Northwestern iron ore export hub of Port Hedland.

The following month, around 30 wagons in an empty iron ore train derailed around 700 km (438 miles) east of Perth after poor weather eroded part of the track.  

Australia’s rail safety regulator said each derailing incident involved unique circumstances and cautioned against trying to link them.  

The rate of freight train derailments in Australia in recent years has remained steady at between 0.4 and 0.5 derailments per million freight train kilometres,  the Office of the National Rail Safety Regulator told Reuters in an email.

It said it was working with the industry to drive the figure lower. 

The Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development has cited in the Freight and Supply Chain Strategy’s supporting documents that rail safety will be enhanced through the implementation of digital train-management systems.
The systems are expected to upgrade the capabilities of the rail industry as a whole, alongside making it safer and more reliable. It is also hoped that consolidating loads will also improve safety, as it lowers congestion across the system.

Sarah O’Connell, Senior Editor, FORWARDER magazine